Tinley mounts her falcon and grabs a handful of Chare’s red-orange plume. “You ask for more than a favor. This requires a miracle. Ekur cannot be found. It doesn’t exist.”
“Let that be my concern.”
Chare rakes her talons into the ground, keen to take off. The mahati’s feathers blaze brassy in the sunshine. Her rider scrutinizes me, Tinley’s pale eyes cool.
“I’ll take you to my father,” she says. “He’ll know how to help you.” She tosses her silver hair over her shoulder and tilts an ear to the sky. “Pons knows we’re leaving. He says someone else gets to tell Natesa.”
I climb on behind Tinley and clasp on to her waist. The falcon’s satiny feathers skim against my ankles. The Galer grins, for she is happiest when navigating the revolving skies on her mahati.
Chare crouches and springs. We shoot up, an arrow bound for the sun. I peek down at the palace, locking a final image of the glinting domes into my mind, and then look forward to the desert horizon.
Pons sits with me on the roof, his feet and legs dangling over the edge. I came up here to watch Kalinda fly away. I presumed correctly that she would petition Tinley for aid. Although Kalinda accused me of ignorance, I understand why she had to go. She left for the same reason I stay. Love and duty require sacrifice.
“Kalinda left to find Deven,” I say.
“So I heard.” Pons peers up at the passing clouds and then sharply east. A wing flyer appears along the desert horizon.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
Something indescribable flip-flops in my chest. The last time I saw Princess Gemi was the evening Kalinda suggested I wed the Southern Isles princess. By the time I proposed a union of states, Gemi had returned to Lestari. We have exchanged brief correspondences, but I have not seen her since she agreed to become my viraji.
Pons and I rise. Why has Gemi come early? She was supposed to arrive by riverboat with the datu and the Lestarian Navy a day before our wedding.
Her wing flyer swoops closer and ascends. Citizens beyond the palace gates gawk at the princess and her two Galer escorts as they land in the front courtyard.
“Your people will ask questions,” Pons cautions.
That they will. My plan to keep my betrothal confidential until the eve of our wedding is over. Too many of my close friends are aware of our alliance. One accidental reference to Gemi as my “viraji” will be our undoing. I am surprised we held the secret this long.
“Send out the wedding proclamation,” I reply hoarsely, “and advise Captain Yatin to be ready.”
In hours, the citizens of Vanhi will know of my choice for kindred and our alliance with the Southern Isles. They should rejoice over the strengthening of our reserves and defenses, but some will undoubtedly oppose my selection.
After drying my perspiring palms on my trousers, I jump off the ledge and dash across the lower rooftop. I grab a rope that I fastened inside a window for a spot of adventure, swinging down to a lower terrace.
Two ranis squeal at my sudden arrival. I pause to collect my bearings. Several doorways stand as options. Next time I will scout out where I land.
I address the astonished ranis. “Which way to the main entry?”
“That way.” One of them directs a crimson nail at a door.
I bow, racing off. The corridors lead me to the double stairway. I glance at the empty entry, then perch on the slick ledge of the banister and ride it to the bottom.
“Where have you been?” Natesa demands from behind me. “You missed your last two meetings.”
“I was planning my wedding.”
“That’s what the second meeting was for.” She props a hand on her hip. Her clothes smell of sandalwood incense. She must have come from the chapel. Each afternoon, she offers burned sacrifices to the gods on Deven’s behalf. “Where’s Kalinda? I haven’t seen her all day.”
I brandish my hands as if the answer is floating past us. “She left.”
Natesa’s expression stones over. Several seconds weigh between us.
“She’s gone to find Deven,” she concludes, paling. “Gods help them.”
Pons appears at the top of the stairway. Natesa remains locked in shock, but I do not trust the state of bewilderment will hold her. Gemi sweeps through the entry, sparing me from finding out.
“Princess Gemi,” I say. “This is a surprise.”
Her cheeks bloom a rosy hue. “I sent word ahead, Your Majesty.” She remembers to bow. “The datu will arrive with the imperial navy in a few days. Their trek upstream was moving too slowly. I hope I’m not intruding.”
I clutch her twitching fingers. “You aren’t.”
Gemi’s lips tug up, her lashes lowering. She wears ebony trousers and a blouse, her trim midriff uncovered. The colorless, formfitting garb is not severe or masculine on her lean frame. Her ivory shell earrings match her collar necklace.
The same peculiar sensation stirs within me. She will be my wife, and I have no idea what her impression is of me or our betrothal.
Pons joins us on the main floor. Gemi rubs the side of his shiny, bald head. Natesa’s lips quirk. Not often is the stern warrior reduced to a boyish playmate.
“Where’s your daughter?” Gemi inquires of Pons. Her islander accent, dropping her r and k sounds, is less detectable than I recall, but more pronounced than Indah’s or Pons’s.
“Jala is napping. I’ll take you to meet her later.” Pons offers her his elbow. “Let me escort you to your chamber, Viraji.”
Princess Gemi tips her chin at me. “We’ll meet again at supper, Your Majesty.”
I confine my curiosity until they are out of earshot. “Natesa, did you know the princess was arriving early?”
“She sent word yesterday.” She tsks at my continued astonishment. “You’d know if you paid attention to your schedule.”
I lower my voice to lessen the echo through the rotunda. “I do pay attention.”
“Not close enough.” Natesa adjusts my sagging collar. “I’m sending a tailor to your chambers. You need more appropriate attire.”
“The clothes you prefer are restrictive.” The garments are uncomfortable, unduly ostentatious, and difficult to climb in. “Did Pons say when I’ll be alone in my library?”
Natesa pats my chest. “Go dress for supper, and I’ll tell you.”
“Tell me when this constant schedule ends or I won’t move.”
“Then you’ll be a very hungry prince, won’t you?” Natesa swivels me around and gives me a push toward the stairs. “Wear the black-and-gold tunic and turban. It’s Gemi’s favorite.”
That outfit itches, and I can scarcely sit in the trousers. “How do you know?”
“As a woman, I sense these things.”
“Can you sense a man’s irritation?”
“Yes, but it’s easy to ignore. I’m helping you represent your greatest self, Ashwin.”
She is trying not to explode. She has bottled up her apprehension over Kalinda’s journey to be released toward me little by little. I would have preferred she throw a fit.
“I’m not a child for you to order about,” I mutter, marching ahead.
“A child wouldn’t complain so much.” She calls at my back, “Be at your atrium at nine o’clock! Don’t be late or I’ll send Yatin after you.”
Captain Yatin may empathize with me as he regularly tolerates her badgering.
I trudge upstairs, too exasperated to argue. A ruler is ruled by his schedule. This regimented lifestyle is my birthright. There is no bargaining with fate.
The tailor measures the inseam of my leg and scribbles down the number. My trousers are too short for what is fashionable. I suppose I should care, but I envy the humble white robes the brethren wear and the loose trousers of the working men. This gaudy embroidery suited my father more than me.
Yatin enters my chamber short-winded. “Your Majesty, a crowd gathered to protest your betrothal. I sent out guards to disband the mob, and the protestors attacked a soldier.”
“How is he?”
“Our healers are with him in the infirmary. He was beaten badly.”
I step off the stool and away from the tailor. “Did you arrest the culprits?”
“We broke up the crowd and seized a handful of perpetrators, but most of them ran off.” Yatin grumbles the last words, cross with himself and his men. “Commander Lokesh was speaking at the time of the soldier’s attack. Lokesh didn’t harm anyone, nor did he imply that his audience should. But, Your Majesty, he spoke out against you and your viraji. He said you will allow bhutas to rule the empire and seek revenge against us.”
The people heard these lies and panicked. Lokesh must presume I will do the same.
“Bring me the commander,” I say, “and send for Brac. Both of you will attend our meeting in the throne room.”
The tailor packs his spools of thread and needles in his basket. I notice a loose strand on the sleeve of my jacket and pluck at it. In seconds, the thread pulls out and the hem of my cuff unravels.
The rajah’s throne is alone on the dais. Plum draperies sweep across the concealed antechamber doors behind it, framing the lonely seat. One leg of the gold-leaf chair was kicked off during the rebel occupation and later replaced. The plush scarlet cloth on the seat and high back was also improved. The warlord Hastin and his rebels tested the sharpness of their blades on the lining.
I ease onto the velvet and evaluate the empty hall. Rows of pillows in jewel tones cover the shiny marble floor. Tarek reserved the front row for his favored four. His kindred occasionally sat in a smaller throne on his right-hand side, but more often, the yellow cushion was hers to kneel on before Tarek. Lakia devoted her life to my father; he did not return her affections in equal measure. He put himself first, above all else.
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